June 27, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, June 27, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Brexit means change for both Britain and Europe. But just what will that change bring?
This morning, both Europe and the United Kingdom wake up to a fundamentally different reality. But at this point it’s not yet clear just what that reality might be. Friday’s vote on the so-called Brexit question in the United Kingdom—52 percent for exiting the European Union, only 48 percent for remaining—will constitute one of the most significant rebukes of a political establishment in recorded history. In particular, it was a rebuke of both the European elites and also the British political establishment almost across the board, as in the Financial Times over the weekend, George Parker, Michael Mackenzie and Ben Hall reported:
“Britain has swept away 50 years of foreign-policy turning its back on the European Union in an extraordinary political upheaval that deposed Prime Minister, sank its currency and reopen to the possibility of Scottish independence. After a lengthy and bad tempered referendum campaign Britons voted by 52% to 48% to sever the country’s 43 year membership in the European Union sending tremors across Europe and triggering global financial market turmoil.”Show Full Transcript
One of the problems for most Americans is that they lack the context to understand just how big a question this really is. This development turns out to be one of the most seismic on the world scene in recent decades. As a matter of fact, you’d have to go back to the end of World War II to come up with a comparable period in which this kind of political upheaval can be found. It was in the end of World War II, continuing discussions that took place in the early 20th century, that the very idea of modern Europe appeared. In the aftermath of the embers of World War II, modern Europe appeared with the hope that there could be a rational and technocratic answer to human problems, especially to the challenge of human government. And what we have seen is a repudiation of the very idea of the European Union, but there is more to it of course.
The reality is that Europe has been torn by wars over century after century, and so the elites in Europe after the Second World War came to the conclusion that, insofar as it is possible, Europe should be combined into something of a continental super state along the lines of the United States of America. Even if the United States is made up of 50 different states in a federal union, the suggestion was that, insofar as it is politically possible, Europe should be combined into a similar kind of state. But there are fundamental problems here. For the one thing, what you’re looking at in Europe is the fact that there are historic nationalism ethnicities, and there are language differences, differences of culture and differences of politics, that go to the very basic level of how human beings live their lives.
One of the major differences in Europe is just to be exemplified between the nation of Greece and the nation of Germany. That has been a major focal point in terms of European controversy in recent years, because in terms of the notion of the economy and politics, even citizenship, even a work ethic, you’re looking at two countries that represent two fundamentally different ways of life. The idea that you could somehow combine Europe into a composite whole was never actually plausible. But it was believed nonetheless by the intellectual elites in Europe who also argued for the fact that it would have to be combined by something of a non-democratic process. The formation of the European Union and its currency, the Euro as it is known, has led to the fact that there has been a subversion of democracy virtually everywhere in Europe. In order to join the European Union, individual states had to give up a great deal of their sovereignty.
One of the interesting aspects of this that was very central to the British equation in terms of the Brexit vote was the ability of nations to have their own foreign policy and their own trade policy. Now keep that in mind in terms of the 2016 American presidential race. In one sense, the same issues are playing themselves out here. But the reality is the United Kingdom does not have a trade policy, it doesn’t have a trade agreement with the United States because it deferred all of that sovereignty and the right to have a trade policy to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels—that is, the headquarters of the European Union. The British people overwhelmingly repudiated that idea.
One of the interesting things that was said in recent weeks was said by President Obama, the President of the United States, who speaking to the British people, warning them that they must not, should not, leave the European Union, said that if they did so they would find themselves at the end of the queue, that is at the end of the line in terms of having a trade agreement with the United States of America. But the President overplayed his hand, and it was used by the very people arguing for the exit from the European Union, because the President’s comment laid bare the fact that England, that is the United Kingdom, can’t have a trade agreement with the United States because in terms of its agreement with the European Union. As a member state, it had deferred all of that authority to Brussels.
That opening paragraph on the front page of the shocked Financial Times is really no overstatement. Let me repeat it. The reporter said that,
“Britain has swept away 50 years of foreign-policy.”
That’s an incredible statement. That 50 years is to take us back to the 1960s and 1970s when modern Europe as we know it was taking shape. Turning its back on the European Union in what they described as an extraordinary political upheaval—and that it is—that deposed its Prime Minister amongst other things, one of the sights the world saw on Friday was the British Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his resignation. Why? Well, for one thing, this is his fault for two very different reasons. In the first place, it is his fault because he was a defender of Britain remaining in the European Union, but he decided it was in the interest of the country, and of his leading party in Parliament, to put it up for a vote. To state the matter very clearly, David Cameron did not think that his argument could lose. But of course it did lose, and it lost in political terms overwhelmingly.
The second reason this is the Prime Minister’s fault is because he failed to make an argument that did carry the day. One of the most surprising developments in the lead up to Thursday’s vote was the fact that some of the members of the Prime Minister’s own cabinet broke ranks and began to support the exit referendum. How big of an historical development is this? Just consider the article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend by Fraser Nelson in which he described the vote as,
“Probably the biggest slap in the face ever delivered to the British establishment in the history of universal suffrage.”
Explaining why the vote was so overwhelming in terms of leaving the European Union, Nelson wrote,
“The Brexit campaign started as a cry for liberty, perhaps articulated most clearly by Michael Gove, the British justice secretary. Mr. Gove offered practical examples of the problems of EU membership. As a minister, he said, he deals constantly with edicts and regulations framed at the European level—rules that he doesn’t want and can’t change. These were rules that no one in Britain asked for, rules promulgated by officials whose names Brits don’t know, people whom they never elected and cannot remove from office. Yet they become the law of the land. Much of what we think of as British democracy, Mr. Gove argued, is now no such thing.”
The British people last Thursday said they want democracy back. In another of the most stunning developments in the lead up to the vote, some leaders of the European Union actually argued that voters in Britain didn’t even have the right to decide whether their country would be or would remain in the European Union. That basic anti-democratic sentiment was something that caught the attention of at least a majority of British voters, stunning the political establishment by repudiating the very idea of modern Europe. As I said, the British Prime Minister resigned on Friday, but he announced that his resignation will not take effect until October, he said, trying to create a period of political stability but acknowledging that someone who was actually for the Brexit referendum, now in the majority, should lead the government beginning as soon as possible.
But here again there are some very interesting issues. One of them is a series of reprisals likely to come from those European elites who were rejected in terms of the Brexit vote. By no surprise, the front page of yesterday’s New York Times included an article in which leaders of the European Union expressed their sentiment that Britain should get out as quickly as possible, and there are all kinds of rumblings about the kinds of recriminations that European leaders might try to bring against England. More specifically, those reprisals would be against the entire United Kingdom.
But one of the other political aftershocks of the vote on Thursday is at the very idea of the United Kingdom as well as the idea of the European Union may now be suspect. Scotland, having two years ago decided it would not leave the United Kingdom, announced that it wants to remain inside the European Union even if that means another vote to exit the United Kingdom—that from the majority party in the Scottish Parliament.
Meanwhile, in terms of what this means for Europe and for Europeans, it was clear that the United Kingdom might not be the last country having joined the European Union to decide to leave. One of the most interesting things reported in recent days is the fact that the motivation, the conviction on the part of British citizens that they wanted to leave the European Union, is actually lower than that of many other nations inside the EU, most notably including France and the Netherlands. From the very beginning, France has been one of the leading and most powerful forces in the European Union, but recent polls indicate that over 60 percent of French citizens now no longer have a sentiment towards remaining in the European Union. Also putting the issue into perspective, John Podhoretz wrote for Commentary,
“No, Britain didn’t just go insane. For more than 40 years, ever since the United Kingdom began its integration into Europe with its entry into what was then called the common market, Britain has been never anything less than uneasy with the interweaving of its political and policy destiny with that of the continent.”
As Podhoretz continued,
“The idea is a simple one and for obvious reasons is never quite stated outright. Britain, according to Britons that is, of course, is a nation apart. It is better, it is the founder of the modern world, the progenitor of modern political freedom, and was twice called upon in the 20th century to help save Europe from itself. For the United Kingdom,” he wrote, “simply to become one nation among two dozen in a loosely confederated Europe is a betrayal of its own national identity as indeed the idea of a united Europe is itself a purposeful assault on the very notion of national identity.”
That’s a very interesting thing we’re going to have to watch. Immediately, there were all kinds of comparisons made between the vote last Thursday and the upcoming 2016 American presidential race. There are certainly some very interesting parallels. The most interesting, the most important of those parallel questions is this: Are we witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic a major populist uprising that could lead to something in this country of as basic in nature a most fundamental upheaval as what we saw in the United Kingdom and may now be seeing throughout a great deal of Europe? By any measure, we are witnessing a lack of confidence, a massive lack of confidence in political leadership. This certainly explains at least in part the turmoil in both of America’s major political parties. It also explains the turmoil not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout much if not all of the European Union.
There will certainly be a lot for all of us to watch in coming days, weeks, or for that matter, even years in terms of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe, or for that matter, the very future of Europe itself. But make no mistake. This is not a matter that is not of importance to Americans, and that means to thinking intelligent American Christians. We have much at stake here. There are fundamental questions in these headlines coming from the United Kingdom and from Europe that will also reverberate here. But at the very least, it also means when something of this massive historical significance happens right before our eyes in our own lifetimes, we dare not miss the lessons that we should see in it. And it’s also absolutely clear that there are yet more lessons to come.
Influential conservative George Will exits GOP over loss of party's conservative identity
But next, here in the United States, one big headline isn’t so much Brexit as it is exit. And the exit in this case is the exit of conservative columnist George Will from the Republican Party. This is big news reported by many media outlets over the weekend. The catalyst for this is the upcoming nomination of Donald Trump for the presidency, the nomination, of course, of the Republican Party. That led George Will, one of the most influential conservative voices in America for decades, to announce—or at least to concede—that he had changed his political affiliation to Independent and that he had done so leaving the Republican Party, of which he had been such an influential part for decades.
The influence of George Will as a major conservative intellectual goes back to the 1960s and the 1970s. Early on he was identified with National Review magazine. That was the platform that was then published by the most influential conservative intellectual of 20th century America, William F. Buckley, Jr. But thereafter, George Will became very identified by his writings and by his influence especially in the Reagan administration, the eight years of the presidency of President Ronald Wilson Reagan.
What was also known is that George Will held to an understanding of conservatism that he called Tory conservatism. There is irony in that, of course, because it is the Tory party that even now is in leadership in the United Kingdom. But George Will wasn’t talking about the contemporary Tories in Great Britain; he was talking about the Tory ideal that was a conservative ideal that held that the society that is best ordered is one that respects certain traditions and one that respects the institutions that perpetuate those traditions. It was the kind of conservatism that was represented by perhaps the most influential conservative thinker of all time, Edmund Burke. And it is also the kind of conservatism that he sees absolutely repudiated by Donald Trump.
Speaking this past Friday in an event for the Federalist Society in Washington D.C., speaking of the Republican Party, Will said,
“This is not my party.”
Will’s much-publicized departure from the Republican Party raises huge questions about the very identity of that party and also about the future of American conservatism. One of the big questions that is now forced by the likely nomination of Donald Trump is whether or not the Republican Party will continue as a conservative party. The exit of George Will indicates that his verdict is no, it shall not. The reason why this is so important is because there are many Republicans who seem not to understand the distinction between a conservative party and a merely reactionary party. A conservative party would hold to certain ideals that would be unchanging over time and would understand the necessity of applying those ideals election after election in terms of office after office. A merely reactionary party simply judges itself and compares itself or contrasts itself with the opposing party. And thus, you have many people in the Republican Party who seem to be satisfied with the idea that all they have to do is distinguish the party from the Democrats and to distinguish the Republican candidate from the likely Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
What George Will is pointing out is that the positions advocated by Donald Trump—though because he’s the nominee may now be Republican positions—are not historic Republican positions and, more importantly to George Will, they are certainly not conservative positions. They do not reflect the respect for institutions and traditions that has made conservatism conservatism. The very idea of conservatism is to conserve that which leads to the right ordering of society—that’s a respect for basic institutions such as the family, the church, and the very mediating institutions of civic society that make self-government in terms of a representative democracy possible. The Brexit in Europe was the big headline over the weekend, but the exit of George Will is a deservedly big headline here in the United States and, we should note, they are not totally unrelated.
One year after Obergefell, historic decision still sending shock waves throughout society
Next, here in the United States, yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Known as the Obergefell decision, it was handed down a year ago yesterday. In light of that, yesterday’s edition over the weekend of USA Today included a headline on the front page,
“One year later, gay marriage win drives liberal causes.”
This front-page article is by Richard Wolf, veteran political and legal observer for USA Today. He writes,
“Gun control advocates lobbying Congress in the wake of the Orlando shootings learned a long time ago: build momentum first in the states.
“Abortion rights proponents hoping to overturn restrictions on clinics and doctors at the Supreme Court learned the value of telling personal stories.
“Immigration rights activists still fighting to get undocumented parents the protections already achieved for their children learned how to influence public opinion.
“All three groups have taken a page from one of the most successful campaigns in history: the gay rights movement’s effort to win same-sex marriage, consummated at the Supreme Court a year ago.”
He went on to say,
“As LGBT leaders reflect on that achievement and retool their campaign to battle what they see as continued discrimination in many states, they are passing on lessons in strategy and tactics to other causes. If it pays off, gay marriage will be the gift that keeps on giving.”
One of the authorities cited in the article is Marc Solomon, former national campaign director for Freedom to Marry. He said, and I quote,
“A lot of other social movements see the marriage movement as an example of one that was able to succeed. There was a huge interest in how we did it.”
Perhaps the most influential single figure in America in terms of advocating for same-sex marriage was Evan Wolfson, the founder of that group Freedom to Marry. He said,
“There has been tremendous appreciation of the fact that this campaign really did something big and, for many people, unexpected. It not only succeeded in transforming the law but did so by transforming hearts and minds in an epic way.”
Well, there is no doubt that this one-year anniversary is a huge moral anniversary for this country. The one-year anniversary of the Obergefell decision leads us to understand how exactly Richard Wolf accurately describes that the logic in the methodology undertaken by that campaign has now been explicitly and very honestly advocated and picked up by other movements as well—in particular, what’s listed here as gun control, immigration, and abortion-rights.
What’s also reflected in this front-page article in USA Today is the incredible, unprecedented, even unexpected speed with which the moral and legal revolution on same-sex marriage took place. Implicit—no, indeed explicit—in this article is the acknowledgment that even the advocates of legalizing same-sex marriage achieved their goal far quicker than they had ever dreamed or expected. And now you have other liberal causes, that’s the very headline in USA Today, trying to piggyback on the success of this very movement.
But the other thing we need to note is that the LGBT movement and the movement to legalize same-sex marriage didn’t emerge out of a vacuum either. They intentionally piggybacked on other movements in America in which they saw parallels. But what we now see is that this one-year anniversary points to the fact that the sexual revolutionaries, having pushed this moral and legal revolution, are now reflecting on the fact that it really was as big a deal as they claimed at the time. And on this both the opponents and the supporters of same-sex marriage are actually in quite honest agreement. It is a very big deal.
And then, as if to mark the anniversary, indeed intentionally to mark the anniversary, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, announced on Friday the naming of the Stonewall Inn in New York City as a national historic monument, the first for the LGBT movement. As Eli Rosenberg for the Times reports,
“The Stonewall Inn has been called the symbolic heart of New York City’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for decades, since the police raid and ensuing protests there in 1969 helped galvanize a national struggle for gay rights.”
The Stonewall Inn points to the symbolic nature of many events, but it also points to the rewriting of history. One of the things we should note is that the LGBT movement may claim the Stonewall Inn and an event that took place there, an uprising in 1969, as part of their common heritage, but when you go back to 1969, you don’t find anything like all that is represented in the LGBT movement present in that uprising. It is nonetheless a very big deal that the President of the United States, one year after the Obergefell decision, decided to mark the Stonewall Inn as a national historic monument. This is not one of those seismic, earth-changing announcements that is made by the White House, nor is it, however, unimportant. It is an importance recognized by the LGBT movement. It is an importance recognized by the President of the United States. And for all those who understand the massive moral shift taking place around us, it is notable for us as well.
One final note in looking at all of these things, some humility is called for in terms of predicting the future. Historian Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, made a very profound statement. Writing in The Guardian he said,
“A universal truth: nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards.”
To that point, even this week is likely to bring yet more surprises.